Brexit and the Northern Ireland Protocol have in effect kept the doors at Stormont shut. The election earlier this year saw Sinn Fein take pole position, but the DUP has refused to instate Michelle O’Neill as First Minister because of the NI protocol. With tonight’s deadline edging closer, the NI Assembly will today again attempt to break the deadlock. Failure to do so will lead to the UK’s new NI Secretary calling fresh elections before the end of the year. Such an election would be costly at a time when people are struggling to make ends meet. The majority of people in Northern Ireland are tired of the political squabbles. No one wants another election. For the electorate, there are far more pressing issues than the resolution of issues surrounding Brexit.
Another day, another NI deadline. If the NI Assembly parties do not reach an agreement by the end of today, Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris is intent on calling another election. A likely date is the 15 December, hardly a day for a large turnout. The new Secretary urged parties in Belfast yesterday to come together and restore the power-sharing executive. Later, he tweeted:
My priority is for NI's political leaders to come together and restore the Executive.
The people of Northern Ireland deserve a fully-functioning devolved government so I understand the public’s frustration.
However, if the parties will not re-form, I will call an election.
— Chris Heaton-Harris MP (@chhcalling) October 26, 2022
The MLAs will gather at Stormont today to try and elect a new speaker which is a prerequisite to establishing a new Assembly. In its continued objection to the Northern Ireland Protocol, the DUP is likely to again use its veto, thus preventing the re-establishment of the power-sharing executive. Responding to the new PMs speech on the front steps of Downing Street, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson wrote on Twitter:
“Uniting our country – the United Kingdom means replacing the protocol with arrangements that respect & restore Northern Ireland’s place in the Union. The integrity of the U.K. Internal Market must be properly protected. This is what’s needed to secure a fully functioning Stormont.”
Speaking to Radio BBC Ulster, the DUP’s Emma Little-Pengelly said:
“I think most people out there will wonder what an election will achieve. I think it is disappointing that the Secretary of State instead of working with his colleagues to try to deal with the protocol resolved, that’s the barrier to getting the institutions restored, it’s a barrier for good reason.
“We’ve been making the case to try and get the issues resolved for three years now, that hasn’t been done. Instead of getting on and doing that the Secretary of State is pushing everyone into an election.”
The party is unlikely to drop its demand to have all economic barriers between NI and the UK removed.
An election no one wants
None of the NI parties will relish another election. Speaking to RTE, the SDLP Claire Hanna said that a new poll would deepen the public’s cynicism. In the likely outcome of a return to the same set of electoral circumstances post-election, she said there is “no indication” that this would lead to any significant change or that, in fact, a “plan B” exists. The more likely outcome would be the return of an identical cast to an identical set of problems.
Speaking on ITV’s GMB, Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald said:
“The Assembly will meet today, we will invite again our unionist colleagues to come into the Executive to provide government for everyone irrespective of their political view and to make some progress and to protect people quite frankly during what will be a very difficult winter.
“If unionism will not do that then we’re facing into an election. Just so as we’re clear if after that election we still have this stalemate, this refusal by unionism to accept change in Ireland, but also to accept the democratic outcome of an election, and if there are no institutions, then we’re not looking at a return to direct rule from London, we will in fact be looking at a partnership arrangement, and joint authority involving Dublin and the government in London.”
In response, the DUP leader said:
“Joint authority wouldn’t be consistent with the Belfast Agreement and I’m not going to be threatened and bullied,” he added.
Electoral tired of NI Assembly stalemate
For many people in Northern Ireland, the continuing stalemate represents a stumbling block in tackling everyday issues. An election could cost as much as £6.5 million at a time of soaring prices. Speaking to Sky News, mother of two Sophie Rusk said:
“I don’t really care about the protocol anymore. I’m more concerned about the people in my community who can’t afford their oil bill, who can’t afford their food.
“Also, the fact that the politicians are just continuing to argue, what a lack of leadership!”